MIT Sandbox inspires highly sought health care innovations with its new Independent Activities Period program.
Ashley Belanger | School of Engineering
When computation and systems biology PhD student Elvira Kinzina was diagnosed with Lyme disease during her first year at MIT, she struggled to find a doctor specializing in the disease — even though Boston is renowned for its thriving health care community. She soon found out this was common for Lyme patients, with many specialists booked out months, years, or indefinitely. Now, she is involved with a new Independent Activities Period (IAP) program focused on health care entrepreneurship, and is developing an app to help Lyme patients find doctors and answers sooner.
“I saw how people suffer when they have to wait, and I wanted to do something about it,” Kinzina says.
Patient advocacy became a recurring theme for students like Kinzina involved in “A Deep Dive into Healthcare Entrepreneurship.” This unique IAP offering seeks to pivot some of the school’s bold thinkers to become health care’s biggest problem-solvers to address the needs of underserved medical communities coping with long Covid, Lyme disease, inflammatory bowel disease, and Down syndrome. Over three fast weeks, 52 participants formed 13 teams via Zoom and Slack to develop highly sought health care solutions. For them, IAP was a whirlwind of brainstorming, discovery, and ideation, attending expert talks while connecting with medical providers, patients, and potential customers to explore new industry terrain.
The IAP program is part of MIT DHIVE: Dive into Healthcare Innovation and Venture Exploration (pronounced “dive”), led by MIT electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) graduate and serial entrepreneur Mahnaz Maddah PhD ’08. Maddah had returned to MIT to serve as the program director at MIT Sandbox after more than 13 years in the industry and Silicon Valley startups developing impactful products. “For me, it is a way of giving back to the MIT community and sharing what I learned in the industry launching products in life sciences,” Maddah says.
MIT Sandbox was launched in 2016, providing support for student entrepreneurs through seed funding, mentorship, and entrepreneurship education.
Jinane Abounadi, the executive director of MIT Sandbox, had observed that a good number of students interested in entrepreneurship were searching for good problems to tackle. Emily Fairbairn, a member of the Sandbox Funding Board, had the opportunity to observe the talent and hard work of MIT student teams. Together, they saw an opportunity to support the ideation phase and help students identify meaningful areas.
After Maddah met with both Abounadi and Fairbairn, she joined MIT Sandbox to explore ways to get entrepreneurial students engaged in solving health care problems. Soon after, Sandbox launched a summer pilot program that encouraged students to explore problem areas in long Covid and Lyme. Emily and Malcolm Fairbairn have generously supported research work and entrepreneurial activities in this area at MIT. The summer pilot was a success and led to tremendous learning and to four teams continuing in Sandbox with strong ideas.
The summer pilot led to the design of DHIVE. Since launching, in a few short months, DHIVE has gained new partners, expanded to support new patient populations, and continued stoking entrepreneurship, with programs offered in fall 2021 and IAP welcoming students from diverse backgrounds. Many students come without any idea or team members and leave the program with both an idea and a team — and opportunities to continue further on their entrepreneurship journey.
“I applied to DHIVE to challenge myself in a space where I had no previous experience: health-care entrepreneurship,” says Sloan School of Management graduate student Patrick Stewart, who joined DHIVE over IAP. “To best identify my blind spots as an entrepreneur and leader, I wanted to build something from scratch in a cross-disciplinary setting.”
According to Maddah, the time is ripe to connect MIT students from different backgrounds, like engineering, business, chemistry, and biology, because there are more data than ever to inform solutions based on care gaps experienced by growing patient pools.
During IAP, students joined teams along three tracks with growing patient pools: long Covid and Lyme, Down syndrome, and inflammatory bowel disease. It is still unknown how many people are coping nationwide with long Covid, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says it’s likely a significant number. The CDC also reports that 35,000 people contract Lyme disease annually, the number of inflammatory bowel disease patients is rapidly rising, and Down syndrome has become the most common chromosomal disorder, affecting 6,000 newborns annually.
Partnering with the MIT Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, the MIT Center for Microbiome Informatics and Therapeutics (CMIT), the Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress, the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation New England Chapter, and the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps (I-Corps) Program at MIT, DHIVE stokes student-led health care entrepreneurship by connecting students with the network, infrastructure, and funding resources needed to get big ideas off the ground that can transform patient lives.
During IAP, Kinzina served as a teaching assistant and supported new students who were mostly assembling new teams or joining existing DHIVE teams from the summer or fall programs.
There are also DHIVE teams that come from industry. John B.A. Okello is a Sloan Fellows MBA student. He started DHIVE in the fall and continued through IAP. With ample experience as a medical researcher and health care innovator, Okello had led his team Nurenyx for three years before joining DHIVE, exploring the drug development process. In that time, he realized through talks with experts and customers that what was needed most was a decentralized clinical trials platform that would connect drug researchers with patients remotely.
With his team, he had begun some customer discovery, so when he found DHIVE, Okello felt the program was a “perfect match.” Participating in fall and IAP, his team’s currently continuing discovery and investigating how to build this dream decentralized clinical trials platform to serve long Covid and Lyme patients, whose experiences often overlap.
After IAP ends, teams can continue with the Sandbox program in spring. That’s the case for EECS undergraduate student Alisa Y. Hathaway, who had limited knowledge of Down syndrome before joining DHIVE. After hearing from patients and doctors, her team responded by developing an app to help Down syndrome patients keep records organized. This spring, her team plans to continue by focusing on learning the logistics of pooling medical records. “After the interviews, there was no way I could stop working on my project — it was very inspiring and moving for me,” Hathaway says.
Students also have a range of options to continue. Upon applying, they are accepted to Sandbox to receive mentorship and financial support to continue working on their ideas. Depending on the stage of their ideas, DHIVE teams can also apply to the I-Corps Spark Program, reach out to partners at Deshpande and CMIT, or join summer accelerators such as MIT’s delta v. Just like DHIVE teams focus on the full process from ideation to product development, DHIVE itself is focused on supporting teams from start to finish by equipping them with tools they’ll need to continue ideating and eventually bring their ideas to market.
For Maddah, DHIVE has become a chance to share with students how rewarding health-care innovation can be as a career path. “I am passionate about health care entrepreneurship: identifying unmet needs in life sciences, coming up with solutions, and taking an idea or concept to a product that people can benefit from,” Maddah says.
Abounadi says it’s also a chance to engage more students, who can realize their potential as health care innovators through DHIVE and then follow through on life-changing ideas through Sandbox.
“DHIVE has proven to be a great way to provide a meaningful framework for students to ideate and to collaborate on important problems prior to committing to an idea in the regular Sandbox program,” Abounadi says. “For many of our students, having this opportunity is critical to their engagement with entrepreneurship education at MIT. We’re excited to see the emerging teams continue on their journey.”